Senators want more COVID-19 data from Health Department

Both Republicans and Democrats want more information.

The Senate Health Policy Committee drilled representatives of Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ administration Tuesday on what data is and isn’t presented on COVID-19, then heard about how the pandemic has created a staffing crisis with no end in sight.

Presenters from the Florida Department of Health and the Agency for Health Care Administration were pressed from the left and right about what data is provided, and where gaps remain in the presentation.

As the Health Department’s Community Health Director Melissa Jordan reviewed vaccination rates among demographic cohorts in a PowerPoint presentation, committee Chairman Manny Diaz Jr. stopped the presentation mid-deck for questions.

Diaz, who briefly floated legislation questioning not just COVID-19 shots, but vaccines writ large, wanted details about people who had been infected previously in the data, offering some weight to natural immunity in addition to documentation of vaccine rates.

“A combination would give us a better view on where we are and where we have been as a state,” Diaz said.

Democrats, meanwhile, offered their own data critiques.

Democratic Sen. Janet Cruz pressed for daily data reporting, which was stopped in June, but Jordan said the department “hadn’t found it necessary because the daily cases were displayed on the CDC website.”

“Sometimes the daily reporting can be a little misleading,” Jordan added later on. “Sometimes those seven-day trends are a better measure of how we are doing overall.”

The state stopped daily reporting right before the delta variant ramped up this summer, and it’s clear that precedent will hold even now that the delta variant has gone into retreat in the state.

Sen. Bobby Powell, Minority Leader Pro Tempore, wanted data on breakthrough cases, specifically comparing the efficacy of different vaccines preventing them. But that seemingly rudimentary information was not available for the presentation.

“With the variants being newer, I don’t have data to share today,” Jordan said, saying it could be provided down the road. That raised more questions about the data the Health Department does and does not choose to release.

Powell also drilled down on the state’s monoclonal antibody therapy efforts, looking for demographic breakdowns the department did not provide for the more than 135,000 doses administered thus far.

AHCA Deputy Secretary for Health Quality and Assurance Kimberly Smoak followed, offering statistics in support of the state strategy amid praise for “Governor DeSantis’ leadership.”

Hospitalizations are down 73% from the peak, she said, part of a 40-day decline.

“As of October 9, only 6.78% of Inpatient Beds and 17.05% of ICU beds were in use for COVID-19, below the national average of 8.53% and 21.47% respectively,” Smoak read from the deck.

While hospitalizations are down, Florida could be feeling the consequences for years to come, noted other subject matter experts.

Former AHCA Secretary Mary Mayhew, now CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, offered her own perspective on the pandemic, describing summer surges in 2020 and 2021, with the latter leading to more than 17,000 virus hospitalizations at its peak. Mayhew made it clear the succession of surges could have ongoing consequences for health care in the state.

“Staffing has been and continues to be one of the biggest challenges,” Mayhew said. “The level of strain and stress that our front line staff has been under for the last 18 months has almost been indescribable.”

Twenty-five percent of nurses and 30% of critical care nurses have left the field, Mayhew said, and the system as a whole is in “recovery mode.” A “significant wage escalation” has happened, amid a “workforce shortage greatly exacerbated by the pandemic” and the surging travel nurse field.

“By the year 2035, we will have a shortage of 60,000 nurses,” Mayhew said, unless a pipeline is built to encourage students to move toward nursing.

Deborah Franklin of the Florida Health Care Association pleaded for legislative support, as she painted the same grim picture Mayhew did for longterm care facilities, with rampant staff attrition driving increased costs per patient per day.

“We’re all fighting for the same staff because of the critical shortage,” Franklin said, with overtime and contract labor providing ballooning costs and burdens for the longterm care industry.

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has been a correspondent for since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at [email protected]

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